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How To Build A Ninja Gym Culture That Kicks Ass (While Riding A Dragon)

by Mark Fisher | Follow on Twitter

We constantly reference vulgar sexual images and fantastical imagery as a teaching tool. One of my trainers often takes off his pants and teaches with a “mangina” (don’t even ask). Our clients spend as much time laughing as they do sweating…

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My goal in this article is to put a nuclear bomb inside your bunghole to ensure you live up to your epic potential.

I want you to have the business of your dreams. I want you to swim around in a giant vat of dollar bills like Scrooge McDuck. I want you to have the lifestyle of your dreams, whether you work for four hours a week, or you crush it 24/7. But most importantly, I want you to honor the reason you got into this business. I want you to make a difference in people’s lives.

I co-own a boutique gym in midtown Manhattan called Mark Fisher Fitness. We may very well be the weirdest “gym” in the world. We don’t even use the word “gym.”

In fact… we hate gyms. This is why we have a Clubhouse. An Enchanted Ninja Clubhouse of Glory and Dreams. (We call our clients Ninjas.) We have a book club, we do a lot of fund raising for charities like Broadway Cares/ Equity Fights AIDS, and we are as crass and vulgar as we are relentlessly positive and nurturing.

At MFF, we train a lot of people who never have (and never would) workout elsewhere. We’ve been called the “Broadway Fitness Cult” because we also train many of the top theatre professionals in the country (directors, composers, stars, chorus boys, stage managers, agents… the whole gamut of the industry). Our clientele is shockingly diverse in age, gender, size, ethnicity, nationality… we are a rainbow of the human experience.

mark fisher build a gym culture

Don’t worry. We’ve since installed a disco ball in the window too.

We are RIDICULOUS humans. But we are also very serious about fitness. We are as well known for our consistent and dramatic results as we are for our outrageous antics.

And we are also serious about business.

In 15 months, MFF has expanded three times and may have to expand yet again because we’re bursting at the seams. In this same time span, we went from 3 full time employees and a part time office manager to 11 full time trainers, 5 full time office staff, and about 20 work study Ninjas who run the front desk in exchange for bartering. We also went from zero clients to nearly 400.

After chats with some trusted fitness industry rockstars like John Romaniello, Dan John, Clif Harski, and Neghar Fonooni, we’ve come to appreciate MFF is a rare bird in our field.

If you’re running a brick and mortar facility, I hope to expand your horizons as to what’s possible. For those running boutique gyms, I believe we are in an age of artisanal fitness. If you currently own or plan on owning a gym, this Bud’s for you.


mark fisher build a gym culture

Seriously. They are EVERYTHING.

The rest of this article is worthless if you don’t have the right people working with you. Particularly if you’re going to grow. Your biggest logistical bottleneck will always be attracting the right talent. And if you don’t know how to take care of people and be a leader, you won’t have the right people working with you.

At the end of the day, the most important marketing you can do is having world class customer service. This means finding amazing humans beings who are passionate about your vision.

It’s a cliché, but it’s true; you can train people on skillz, but you can’t make them burn with the light of a thousand suns to change people’s lives. And if you’re in the fitness industry, I hope that’s your end game.

One of our very first hires is one of my best friends who had never done any training before. My business partner came into town for the night, and after an evening of partying and hanging out at a strip club, we decided he was the perfect person to come onboard.

(As an aside, I also know people recommend that you shouldn’t work with friends. I disagree. It’s of course prudent to make sure there are contracts and everyone is on the same page, but I actually recommend it. Yes, not all friends are ideal for shared business ventures. But if you have NO friends that you would do business with, I think you need better friends.)

Hire for awesomeness. Hire for reliability, hustle, and passion. Hire for a Give A Shit-ness. If they really, truly Give A Shit, you can train for everything else.

Then once they’re onboard, pay them, empower them, and train them to kick ass.

PAY THEM: As Daniel Pink notes in Drive, you need to first pay them enough to get money off the table as an issue. Does this mean our payroll is higher than it could be? Yes. Does this mean we could be more profitable? In the short term, sure.

But we’re playing the long game. This means more ownership from everyone on the team. It means less turn-over. It means affording a certain quality of life to the very people who are building our business.

And while you need to pay them “enough,” if you’re creating a world-class working environment, people don’t need you to bribe them to bring their bare minimum to the table.

To be clear, I completely and totally reject the E-Myth myth. Yes, there is a difference between entrepreneurs, managers, and technicians. But I don’t think it will serve you to reduce your team of Artist Warriors to a bunch of Robot Monkeys.

But what about creating Systems with a capital S? Sure! I’m all for systems. We create protocols and systems for EVERYTHING. Training the trainers, designing programs, nutrition recommendations, customer service, marketing, sales, prospect funnels. Systems are necessary but…

EMPOWER THEM: My whole life is a War with Robots, and I only want to work with artists. It’s messier that way, but that’s life. I need people who don’t need to refer to a manual for delicate, raw human encounters.

I need people who know how to handle a Ninja when they burst into tears because they’re boyfriend broke up with them. I need people who can intuit from a Ninja’s energy on a given day that he’s stressed about work and shouldn’t do a deadlift PR. I need people who can feel the energy is lagging in class, so everyone in the Ninja Clubhouse should stop what they’re doing and have a spontaneous dance party.

An automaton can’t do that. Find people you can trust to make good game time decisions based on your core values, then let them have at it.

TRAIN THEM: While I want them to be artists and honor what is intrinsically unique about them, our culture is built on kaizen; never ending improvement. We have TWO weekly team meetings. We relentlessly drill not only the nuances of technique cueing, but we also work the hell out of our life coaching skills (two of our team members are Life Coaches and we offer it as an add-on service).

If you want the best team possible, you have to help them pay for education, you have to get them books to read, you have to encourage them to follow their particular fitness passions. You also need to understand that they will burn out if they don’t have any work/ life balance, and they will not be able to blow your clients’ minds if they work the typical trainer-triple-split day of before work, lunchtime, and after work.

And while I “manage” by providing guidelines, checklists, and accountability, I think the more important position is “servant leader.”

I give them feedback when I see something that can be improved, but I also constantly look to catch them doing something right. I try to check in with them as often as I can to see how else I can improve their life here. I want their perspective if and when I’m inadvertently being an obstacle. I celebrate them and cherish them every chance I get because without our team, there IS no MFF.

Lastly, leadership is different than management. To paraphrase a quote, if you want to build a rocket ship, it’s necessary to have people who have the skills and technical know how. But it’s more important to light them on fire with a longing for the stars.

Only Connect

mark fisher building a gym culture

Jazzhands are an underrated element of business success

At MFF, Ninjas come for the six pack, but they stick around to cope with the anxieties of modernity.

In an increasingly connected world, many humans still seek a sense of community. Say what you want about Crossfit, but it’s something they’ve done really well as an institution.

Not only is social support a well known factor for fitness results and sustainability, I believe a sense of community is going to be key in the age of artisanal fitness. For years, most gym goers had two choices; they rented equipment and slogged away listing to their iPod, or they paid someone to give them one on one attention. Both of these models still have their utility for a certain type of person.

At MFF, we prefer group classes and semi-private training. Not only is it a great business model from a financial standpoint, the sense of community dramatically improves results and member retention.

We spend a lot of our time, energy, and money on trying to create the best possible customer service possible. We throw parties. We have theme days where we decorate and everyone gets dressed up. We write hand-written cards to celebrate their fitness victories, send condolences about deaths in their family, and wish them well on new jobs. In spite of having 400 clients, the entire team knows the name of almost all the Ninjas. We know their goals, we know their backgrounds, we know their movement needs.

We also rely on the Ninjas to help create the culture.

Two of MFF’s most notable images are Ninjas and unicorns. Both of these came from our Ninjas latching on to an off-the-cuff comment I made while teaching class. By listening to what sparks their imagination, it allows us to build a sense of ownership into our community. We also constantly look for feedback about what they like and don’t like, and immediately take action as soon as they make us aware of an opportunity to do something better.

Perhaps the greatest testament to this community is the fact that we have several groups and programs run by Ninjas, for Ninjas (just like FUBU!).

Our most popular portal program is a six week intensive called Snatched in 6 Weeks. The Ninjas have organized their own alumni organization called Snatched By Association that functions within the broader MFF world. It includes a Facebook forum, a Gmail calendar to coordinate classes, nutrition accountability buddies, and daily inspirational emails. With no official MFF effort (outside of love, emotional support, and a bit of donated space), the program has been wildly successful and further strengthened our community.

If you’re looking to create an artisanal fitness business, creating a strong culture is important. This is achieved via a relentless focus on customer service, empowering your clients to co-create the culture, and by listening closely to their kudos and jeers.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly

mark fisher building a gym culture

This is a picture of me soaring through the sky while riding a dragon.

Perhaps the most important element in building a kick ass business is being authentic. This requires courage; you have to own whatever is unique about you. Invariably, people will think your nuts.

And so it goes…

In the mid-2000’s, the elite ranks of the fitness industry interwebz was dominated by the Strength Coach Era. And these guys are still around for good reason; they’re awesome. They’re super smart and done a lot to move our young industry forward. They created gyms and businesses with words like “athlete,” “results,” “elite,” “performance,” and of course “strength and conditioning.”

They provided a bridge from the bodybuilding world to more progressive training protocols, they wrote articles for T-Nation, and a generation of young men who loved sports got better and faster results.

In the past few years we’ve seen the rise of the Nerd Fitness Era. Embodied by a generation of men a few years younger than the Strength Coaches, these guys not only applied these sexier training protocols… but they also played Dungeons and Dragons in high school. They were “gamers,” they could quote Lord of the Rings, and their blogs, fitness products, and podcasts were filled with references to 80’s Saturday morning cartoons.

These pioneers brought these new rules of lifting to a new demographic. Yes, many of them also wrote for T-Nation, and many of them did in fact find a way to be strong and jacked, but they spoke to (and as) the guys who got picked on in high school. And another broad swath of young men was inspired that they too could achieve their fitness goals.

As the internet was ushering a new era of fitness, another shift was taking place in the brick and mortar wing of the industry. This same 10-year period saw the slow decline of the big box culture, and the rise of the boutique, coaching-intensive training facility. These studios took the progressive information the internet had to offer and focused on actually getting results for their clients. These smaller businesses have often out-maneuvered larger and machine-ier gym franchises, and the industry and society as a whole benefited.

I believe we are in the dawn of a new era. This is the dawn of artisanal fitness.

We are already seeing this online. The mostly white straight male rockstars of progressive online fitness are already starting to share the stage with important female voices. Different ethnicities, sexual preferences, and ages will not be far behind.

And as pertains to our conversation, the brick and mortar training facilities also have a new opportunity. Simply getting great results is no longer enough to differentiate yourself as more and more boutiques are opening up. If you want to build a superior business, you need that extra special “something.”

I want to be clear, I’m not suggesting finding a gimmick per se. Your extra special “something” is the love child of whatever is unique about you (and your team) and whatever niche you’re looking to serve.

If it’s not authentic, it’s not gonna work.

At MFF, we are ridiculous humans who are serious about fitness. We are legitimately not right in the head. I don’t recommend copying us because I don’t think you can pull it off.

We constantly reference vulgar sexual images and fantastical imagery as a teaching tool. One of my trainers often takes off his pants and teaches with a “mangina” (don’t even ask). Our clients spend as much time laughing as they do sweating, and it’s not uncommon to have group sing alongs mid-class.

As one of our Ninjas said, at the Ninja Clubhouse, we all sit at the cool kids’ table. The former and current jocks have been well served by the strength coaches. The nerdy straight guys have been well served by the nerd fitness bro-thaurities. The blue ocean opportunity is the 80 plus percent of the country that doesn’t currently belong to a gym.

At MFF, we pride ourselves on being the aisle of Misfit Toys.

The obese but sassy woman who is terrified by what her doctor told her at her last check-up. The chronically underweight gay man who wants the physique confidence to finally proposition a sexy stranger at the bar. The corporate lawyer lady who is secretly in a punk rock band. The IT start-up guy who is over 50 and is finally willing to tackle the trauma of always being picked last for sports.

These are the courageous ones. They are bravely jumping off a cliff to forge a new life of health and hotness, and it is our honor to catch them.

We know MFF is not for everyone, and that’s ok. Our credo can can probably be summed up by legendary fashion designer Mary Quant; “Good taste is death, vulgarity is life.” Everything about our brand of fitness is completely authentic to who we are as ridiculous humans, and we speak in the voice that is most effective and enjoyable to our target audience. We completely respect that a lot of people will NOT vibe with how we roll.

So I ask you…

What is different about YOU? What is YOUR story? What do you and you alone have to offer the world? How are you going to imbibe the most progressive strategies in training and make something new?

And who is your audience? Who are the people with whom you long to create a community? Who do you love most in the whole world?

Too many folks stumble in this industry because they love sports or exercise science, but seem to lack a profound love of humanity. Yes, being great at training is a must. Master your domain knowledge. But if you don’t genuinely love love LOVE people, I don’t think this is the right business for you.

And if you think there’s nothing special about you, or you can’t think of what particular audience you hope to serve… think harder. Many of us were brainwashed by a school system that wanted to produce Obedient Beige Robots.

You are not a robot. You have a freak flag, you just misplaced it. Your audience is counting on you to find it. They’re waiting to hear your unique voice.

Figure out what makes you unique. Take the time to be specific about what type of person you love most. Then let this shine through in every piece of marketing, every training cue, and every choice of decoration in your space.

As Seth Godin has noted, the Industrial Age is over. We are all artists now.

I can’t Wait to Get Out of Bed in the Morning

how to build a gym cultureI don’t want to pretend like I have it all figured out. I don’t. I’m just like every other intellectually serious person, painfully aware I’m making it up as I go along. But I’ll say this; I’ve created a business that I love so much I literally can’t wait to get out of bed in the morning so I can start working. I want this for you too.

I think if anything really sets MFF apart from some of our competitors, it’s a willingness to lean into the discomfort and go our own way.

We don’t care about competing for money or fame. We care about competing in happiness. We want to create the maximum amount of smiles. We barely even consider ourselves to be in the fitness industry. Yes, we do fitness training. But if you really want to create the magical business of your dreams, it’s about a lot more than reps and variables and protein.

I love Cirque de Solei. They are superlative at every element they incorporate into their shows. They put different pieces of different arts together, they’ve completely revolutionized the cultural concept of a “circus,” and some of their shows occasionally suck. Because that’s just part of the deal when you walk the tight rope.

I want MFF to better than Cirque de Solei. There. I said it.

We’re not trying to just build a nice business. We love money, but that’s not why we exist. We want to be an institution. We want to be around for 100 years. We want a modern art exhibit curated as part of our group fitness classroom. We want to one day have a non-profit foundation that allows us to pursue various charitable causes. We want to produce Broadway musicals, and we want to write books and produce TV shows about psychological jujitsu and progressive technique in mental hygiene. We want the mayor of NYC to commission a statue of a unicorn to be placed on the corner of 39th st. and 9th ave. to commemorate the birthplace of the Grand Unicorn Experiment.

I think business should be the most profoundly satisfying and creative art form imaginable. If you think business is lame or boring, I lovingly submit you’re doing it wrong. Dream bigger dreams.

“If you think business is lame or boring, I lovingly submit you’re doing it wrong. Dream bigger dreams.” – Click to Tweet

I’m passionate about the fitness industry. I’m so proud of how far we’ve come and I’m overwhelmed with excitement for the potential we have to take it to yet another level. There are tidal changes taking place in the larger economy, the mercurial nature of the technology threatens to disrupt entire industries in the blink of an eye, and we face the very real possibility of health care epidemic. You are well positioned to make your dreams come true by helping others make their dreams come true.

While I hope some of my observations can spur you to actually take some action steps to build or improve an amazing business, most of all I hope there’s a nuclear warhead in your bunghole.

I hope you’re dreaming epic dreams that threaten to swallow you whole. I hope you’re emboldened to be willing to fail again and again on the path to “better.” No pressure, but the whole world is waiting for you…

[Note from Jon] The pictures were fun, but you gotta watch this video to get the full idea of just how inane, crazy, ludicrous, and ingenious Mark is:

About the Author
Mark Fisher

Mark Fisher is the co-owner of Mark Fisher Fitness, a boutique gym in midtown Manhattan. MFF particularly loves working with folks that hate working out and/or sat alone at lunch in middle school. Our philosophy of training and nutrition is based on the Albert Einstein dictum, "Make everything as simple as possible, but not any simpler." In his spare time, Mark likes dropping F bombs and playing with puppies. Check MFF out on Facebook Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube. Seriously, do it. You'll be stoked you did.